Ethics Matters

A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Paul Elliott, Professor of Communications, California State University, Fullerton
Deni Elliott, Director, The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana
(E-mail and Web page)

Manipulation: The Word We Love to Hate
Part Two

Photojournalism has a long and cherished tradition of truthfulness. The impact of the visual message on a viewer comes directly from the belief that the "camera never lies." As a machine, the camera faithfully and unemotionally records a moment in time. But a machine is only as truthful as the hands that guide it.

One of the challenges in discussing the concept of manipulation is that it is important to separate the sort of manipulation that is a necessary part of the journalistic process from that sort of manipulation that is deceptive or that otherwise tricks viewers. Photographers and videographers manipulate reality whenever they move for a better angle, change a lens, zoom in or out or decide what should be in sharp focus or what action should be stopped. They manipulate images by sizing, cropping, and choosing a picture's proper color balance and through the editing process. These sorts of manipulations are a part of editorial and professional judgment.

However, when most journalists hear the term, "manipulation," stage managing subjects and faking scenes most often come to mind. In their extreme forms, these actions are examples of journalistic misconduct. Photographers and editors learned early in photography's history that economic and political gains could be made by manipulations because of a naive and trusting public.

Spirit photography is a perfect example. An outgrowth of the Spiritualism religious movement, spirit photography supposedly captured the likeness of a deceased person during a photographic sitting. In 1862, one of the first spirit photographers, William H. Mumler of Boston made appointments with customers and asked for pictures of the deceased. The portraits, were necessary, they were told in order to communicate more easily with dead loved ones. Mumler than used the new technology that few lay persons understood. He exposed part of a negative plate with the image. Using that same negative during the portrait sitting, he simply developed the image and showed the print to the amazed and grateful customer. Although wanting to believe, Harry Houdini, the famous magician and escape artist, made it part of his career to exposed spirit photography as fake. He estimated that there were more than 200 ways spirit photographers could fake a picture (most methods were variations on multiple exposures). But although civil authorities and photographic experts knew of the manipulations at work by spirit photographers, the general public, for the most part, believed in the phenomenon and flocked to spiritualists for images of their departed loved ones. They believed in the truth of the spirit photographs because they did not understand the technical aspects of capturing light with a camera and printing the result. Their ignorance was bolstered by their desperation to believe in what they saw.

Here are some other infamous miscues of photography over the years:

* Photography inventor Hippolyte Bayard made an early faked picture and caption combination in 1840 of himself posed as a corpse to protest all the attention and money Louis Daguerre received with his daguerreotype process introduced a year earlier;
* For dramatic effect one of the first photojournalists, Roger Fenton added cannon balls to his 1855 image, "The Valley of the Shadow of Death;"
* In 1857, Oscar Rejlander produced a picture titled, "Street urchins tossing chestnuts," by hanging the nut with a fine thread. In that same year Rejlander produced his famous, "Two Ways of Life" by combining 30 separate images into one. The next year, Henry Peach Robinson in "Fading Away" used the same cut and paste technique;
* Alexander Gardner moved the body of 18-year-old Pvt. Andrew Hoge, killed during the battle in Gettysburg, for two different pictures;
* Photographers re-enacted famous battle scenes of the Spanish-American War in New Jersey backyards;
* In 1936, Arthur Rothstein almost short-circuited his career when it was discovered he traveled around the country with a steer skull that he placed within different scenes for dramatic effect;
* That same year, one of the most famous photographic portraits ever produced, "The Migrant Mother," was a study in stage management by Dorothea Lange;
* The next year, Robert Capa's "Death of a Loyalist Soldier" and H.S. Wong's image of a baby crying at the Shanghai train station were published in LIFE, with many believing they were too unusual to be real (the former was, the latter not);
* Joe Rosenthal for the AP captured a re-created rising of a larger flag over Iwo Jima in 1945 and won a Pulitzer Prize;
* The 1980s saw National Geographic enter the manipulation hall of fame with its 1982 cover stories on Egypt and Poland along with the manipulated Day in the Life books;
* In 1989, a Diet Coke can was removed (plus a television set was cropped out) from a portrait of Pulitzer Prize winner, Ron Olshwanger and his wife by an editor for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch;
* The 1990s was known for New York Newsday's Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan "meeting," the manipulated face of OJ Simpson on the cover of TIME, and the perfect smile of septuplet mother Bobbi McCaughey on the cover of Newsweek;
* The events of 9/11 sparked usual and unusual manipulations. Newsweek and TIME for their 9/11 covers cut out the background around a Twin Tower in order to create an eye-catching 3-D effect of the building in front of the magazine's name, a common technique for used by many magazine art directors; amateur photographers proved they can manipulate images as well as professionals with Peter Guzli's composite fake of a hapless tourist on one of the Twin Towers the morning of 9/11; and
* The Iraqi conflict of 2003 produced many different types of manipulations: embedded journalists were only shown, for the most part, what the US military wanted them to see, Brian Walski of the Los Angeles Times was fired for his composite image, when a statue of Saddam Hussein fell in Baghdad, editors had to decide which "truth" to emphasize--US liberation or occupation--on frontpage displays (when balanced presentations are preferred), and President Bush's dramatic arrival via fighter jet on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln to announce the end of major fighting.
Today, readers and viewers are much more knowledgeable about how photography works and the methods used to alter the content of images with sophisticated, yet relatively easy to use and inexpensive manipulation software loaded on their desktop computers. But, while they are more aware of the technical possibilities, they are less concerned than ever about journalistic misconduct.

Due, in large part, to the influence of advertisers and Hollywood special effect teams, as well as the willingness of news managers to give entertainment and aesthetic values priority over "the news," the line between journalism and entertainment is blurred. Readers and viewers polled after public incidents of journalistic visual deception, don't seem to know why it should matter if news images are accurate or spontaneous.

News consumers can't name the problem when a photojournalist or videographer asking a subject to repeat some action for a better shot. They no longer distinguish between incidents when elements of two images are combined into a third in a news photo and when the same illustrative trickery occurs on the covers of magazines or in feature films.

Is it not enough to label a manipulated image an "illustration" and then offer it up where consumers have reasonable expectations that a news photo might be. Presenting a visual reality and simultaneously contradicting that purported reality with text that claims otherwise causes dissonance for the viewer. The psychological experience of dissonance calls for relief. Research shows us that the usual viewer's relief takes two seemingly contradictory forms: choosing, at least on a subconscious level, to believe what they see rather than what is said and developing distrust in the messenger who would cause that internal struggle.

If journalists cannot take the public back to a time when images were completely trustworthy, what is the future of photographic credibility? These questions are some we want to explore in the next and last column of this series on manipulation.

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